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Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature.

Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature. Christina Alt (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010) ix + 229 pp.

As Christina Alt discusses in her introduction, critics such as Gillian Beer, Louise Westling, Elizabeth G. Lambert, Michael Whitworth, and Holly Henry have demonstrated Woolf's engagement with Victorian natural history, evolutionary theory, and early twentieth-century physics. Many other critics interpret Woolf's nature imagery in the Western symbolic tradition that can be traced back to the classical Greeks and the Bible. Alt both builds on and takes issue with these critics. She focuses on the early twentieth-century life sciences rather than physics or evolution and asserts that a "scientific frame of reference adds rigour and specificity" to analysis of nature imagery in Woolf's writing (5). Alt's central argument is that Woolf sensed a "shared outlook" between the sciences and arts of her day (2) and conceptualized the modernist creative process as analogous to the new approaches in the natural sciences of the early twentieth century while using analogies to Victorian taxonomy to represent limited and constricting modes of writing.

The first two chapters discuss the life sciences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chapter one focuses on "the taxonomic tradition of natural history" and chapter two on the "modern life sciences" that "defined themselves against this tradition" (14). Thus, Alt writes a history of the biological sciences that mirrors the reaction of literary modernism against nineteenth-century realism; at stake in the debates concerning both science and literature were definition of the "reality" under observation, the proper goals of the artistic or scientific endeavor, and the most effective methodologies through which to pursue those goals. Alt bases her discussion on recent histories of science as well as science writing just prior to and contemporary to Woolf.

The dominant approach to the study of nature in nineteenth-century Britain was taxonomy. Collection of specimens, their identification and placement in the taxonomic system, and their preservation and arrangement in collections were the major activities of natural scientists both "serious and recreational" (19). According to Alt, the focus on inductive rather than deductive reasoning in British science, the lack of state financial support for science, the vast regions of the British empire ripe for collecting specimens, and the use of science to support religion all made Victorian natural history both slow to change and widespread in British culture. Promoted as a pious, rational, and morally uplifting pursuit for all social classes and both sexes, natural history was also seen as a moderating influence on the potentially radical interests and impulses of the working classes. Alt uses Woolf's memoirs and letters to show that the pursuit of natural history in the Stephen household followed the British mainstream: focused on specimen collection and identification, intended to educate and discipline the children, and supportive of social hierarchies as the Stephens set up a family "museum" and "entomological society."

By the beginning of the twentieth century, evolutionary theory and the rise of laboratory biology challenged the centrality of taxonomic natural history. The controversies instigated by Darwin's work, Alt explains, involved not only religion but also debates regarding inductive vs. deductive reasoning and the museum vs. the laboratory. Alt draws from recent histories of science the understanding that support for evolution "can best be viewed as part of a larger agenda of seeing secular, speculative biology centred in the laboratory triumph over the museum-based, theologically justified taxonomic cataloguing that had dominated the study of nature" (42). Concern for the preservation of endangered species and for the suffering of animals, expressed through the protection, anti-vivisection, and conservation movements, also played roles on both sides of this debate. The new biology became identified with modernity and "taxonomy and the new biology were consequently used by scientifically inclined authors such as H. G. Wells to represent the clash between the Victorian and the modern" (45).

The development of ethology and ecology also marked a change in focus and method. Rather than going into the field to kill insects, birds, animals, and plants and take them home to preserve and study, ethologists and ecologists observed living creatures in their natural environments in order to understand how they behave and how ecosystems (a new concept introduced at this time) function. This approach emphasized motion, interaction, process, and change rather than the insertion of species into a fixed, static definitional system. Alt points out that many early twentieth-century writers, such as Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce, and even Rudyard Kipling, were interested in these new sciences. Thus Woolf is not singular in her interest in the new life sciences or her incorporation of them into her writing.

Throughout her book, Alt discusses Woolf's references to science and allusions to the work of science writers such as entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre; nature writer, amateur ethologist, and novelist W. H. Hudson; bird ethologist Julian Huxley; ecologist Charles Elton; and science popularizer J. Arthur Thomson. In the third and fourth chapters, however, Alt focuses most intently on analyzing Woolf's writing. Chapter three, "'To Pin Through the Body With a Name'," argues that Woolf uses natural history to critique the social class system, imperialism, militarism, and patriarchy and also critiques the ways that "taxonomic science was used to buttress the existing social order" (99). For example, in Jacob's Room, Woolf uses moth and butterfly collecting as an analogy for the civilization that "captures" and "sedates" Jacob who "emerges at last a simultaneous victim and representative of civilization" (97). That Jacob himself sugars for moths, kills specimens, and makes corrections in F.O. Morris's book (the oft-reprinted A Natural History of British Moths [1871] perhaps) suggests that he is both a victim and a perpetrator of a social order that promotes acquisitiveness, control, and war. Woolf also uses classification "as a metaphor for the construction of identity in society" (99), presenting naming as possessive and deadening while life itself escapes rigid classification. Finally, Woolf questions the epistemological validity of classification through consistent references throughout the novel to various characters' (as well as the narrator's) failed attempts to classify Jacob whose nature remains unresolved at the end of the novel.

In contrast, Alt argues, Woolf embraced the new methods and ideas of laboratory science, ethology, and ecology and used them to figure liberatory modes of thinking and interacting. Thus, botanist William Bankes is capable of unpossessive love and Lily Briscoe can trust him to be an impartial observer of her painting, while Mr. Ramsay, whose possessive love of his wife is destructive, is a categorical thinker (TTL); "Woolf suggests that while a taxonomising mind, intent only on the categorization of what it sees, might be expected to stifle creativity, a mind trained in the study of function is more inclined to seek to understand the purpose of a work of art than to judge it on the basis of pre-existing categories" (110). Similarly, Alt argues, in A Room of One's Own Woolf condemns taxonomy's "desire for domination through knowledge" through her characterization of Professor von X rushing for his measuring rods to prove women's inferiority (124). Alt also offers an informative re-reading of Chloe and Olivia in A Room and the influence of Marie Carmichael Stopes. Not only does Chloe and Olivia's work in a laboratory connote modernity and women's advancement, Woolf rewrites (rather than references as other critics have argued) Stopes's novel Love's Creation. There is only one woman scientist in Love's Creation; Lillian Rullford eventually marries her male laboratory colleague and then dies in an accident, while the novel favors her more domestic, warm, and sensitive sister who eventually marries Lillian's widower and serves as his helpmeet and mother of his children. Stopes's novel thus does not challenge gender norms and does neutralize the revolutionary potential of the woman scientist. Woolf's imagined novel, in contrast, entertains the possibility that women could combine the roles of scientist, feminist, and mother and support each other in these roles. Yet, at the same time, Love's Creation critiques taxonomy as a power play and presents the new biology as full of creative potential, a contrast that Woolf echoes in A Room.

Alt suggests that the complex motivations of modern ecology, to understand and protect the subtle balance of nature yet also to control "pest" species (which Woolf discusses admiringly in her essay on Eleanor Ormerod's entomology research and promotion of pesticides ["Lives of the Obscure"]), raise interesting questions about possible internal contradictions in Woolf's work. Alt asserts that "Three Guineas is [...] at once pacifist in its message and combative in its tone, and the violence that it recommends takes scientific form" (144). Woolf compares militarism, patriarchy, fascism, and imperialism to insect pests and recommends their destruction through the analogy of pest control. On the other hand, Alt notes that the more sympathetic and socially progressive of her characters, such as Ralph Denham, Eleanor Pargiter, and Lucy Swithin, pursue bird watching, while the more violent or dominating characters, such as Giles Oliver and William Rodney, are interested in control and extermination of other species.

Alt concludes her book by drawing together the threads of her arguments about taxonomy and the modern life sciences to propose that Woolf uses ethology and ecology as analogies for the representation of life in fiction: "in place of a literary method focused on exhaustive description in the service of definitive classification, Woolf advocated acceptance of the fact that only fleeting glimpses of a moving subject were possible or, indeed, desirable" (168). Alt argues that in Woolf's revisions of "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" she reworked her analogies for the writing process and moved "away from a taxonomic aesthetic and towards an aesthetic of observation and protection" (180). This move is also an epistemological one in which the goal of fiction is not to capture and define reality but to record "fleeting glimpses of a life in motion" (180). This approach produces "an ecological rather than a taxonomic conception of self" (182); Clarissa Dalloway's "self" consciousness is an example of this ecological view while Holmes and Bradshaw's classificatory approach is oppressive and destructive of life. In The Waves, Susan and Bernard's approaches to life and language exemplify the contrast between the collector and the observer. Yet at the same time, Bernard's alphabetized notebook of phrases shows he is tempted to collect and classify, while the real value of his creativity with words lies in his "inconclusive, provisional tales" (188). Alt ends with a discussion of Woolf's radio broadcast, "Craftsmanship," in which Woolf talks about words as living organisms. Woolf "depicts words as forming a community in an ecological sense" and as changing and evolving (189-190). The writer is "a witness to the life processes and behavior of living language" (190).

Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature offers a clear and helpful history of early twentieth-century biological sciences in Britain and demonstrates the range and durability of Woolf's interest in science and her use of it throughout her career as an analogy for the representational process and the meaning-making of art. Alt convincingly models how knowledge of the content and discourses of the life sciences of Woolf's day leads to a fuller understanding of Woolf's imagery and frames of reference. Alt's analyses of Woolf's works, while not offering strikingly new interpretations, provide useful confirmation of and greater historical context for previous critics' feminist, socialist, ecocritical, and anti-imperialist readings. However, Alt's decision to distribute discussion of each of Woolf's works throughout the book's chapters, while enabling her to develop her narrative about science, means that the reader often is left without a clear understanding of how scientific allusions and analogies work in the structure of a particular novel or short story--how they fit in, or don't, with the rest of what is going on in the piece of fiction. In addition, greater engagement with both feminist science studies and ecocritical literary theory would, I think, have strengthened Alt's analyses as well as enabled her to develop a compelling argument for how her work has significance beyond Woolf studies and, conversely, how Woolf studies fits in the larger critical and theoretical landscape, so to speak. Nevertheless, Alt's book is a significant contribution to Woolf studies and well worth reading.

--Diana L. Swanson, Northern Illinois University
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Author:Swanson, Diana L.
Publication:Woolf Studies Annual
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Words:2030
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